MTT Strategy: The Middle Stage

The middle stage is characterised by the decreasing relation of the stack size to the blinds and the ante. In contrast to the early stage, the game in the middle phase has much less in common with the classic cash game. The average stack is often only around 30 BBs. Decisive here is playing the right game for the various stack sizes.

Why steal the blinds?

As the size of the blinds increases, stealing them automatically becomes more interesting. This is particularly the case with the large ante at PokerStars, which is approx. 1/10 of the big blind. This substantially increases the number of chips we need per orbit (round).

  • Example 1

Blinds: 100/200, no ante
Every player has to pay 300 chips in blinds per orbit.

  • Example 2

Nine players, blinds: 100/200, ante: 25
Every player has to pay 525 chips in blinds and ante per orbit.

This is at the same time the number of chips already in the pot before the action has even started. By comparison with the previous example without an ante, this is an increase of around 70%! Stealing the blinds is thus much more lucrative. However, the increased bring-in is also a disadvantage because it means that we have to bring in correspondingly more chips in every orbit, which can quickly put us under pressure.
We must now adjust our strategy so that we attack the blinds more aggressively than the other players. In order to keep our stack constant we have to win the blinds and the ante only once per orbit on average. And if we manage to do it twice, we’ll win 525 chips per orbit!

Tips for stealing the blinds

The classic blind steal is a raise from the late position, best of all from the button. The position is important for two reasons: firstly, because we have position on both blinds and secondly, because there are fewer players after us who could be holding a premium hand.

If we attack the blinds with a weak hand from a middle position we have the following disadvantages.

  • Players in the middle and late position can call our raise. This would lead to difficult situations on the flop because we would usually be holding a weak hand while being out of position.
  • Another player could decide to re-raise. In this case we would normally have to fold our hand.

The small blind is also suitable for stealing the blinds, but we would have the decisive disadvantage of not having position post-flop. If we are the small blind and the other players have folded, we have various options:

  • Fold: as a rule we should simply fold weak hands here.
  • Call: we can also just complete the small blind, which makes sense particularly with marginal hands.
  • Raise: with stronger hands we should usually raise. Calling with a strong hand can make sense against an aggressive opponent because we can re-raise the probable raise from the big blind.

What is important for us in the small blind is that we raise more than normal, which again is dependent on position, and that we’re only playing against the big blind. With a normal raise, the big blind would have such good pot odds that he could call with a large variety of hands; from a mathematical point of view, he would actually have to call. For this reason we should raise by least three times the big blind (in other words we should raise to 4 BBs).

  • The strength of our own hand is important for a blind steal but not decisive. We can attack the blinds with a wide variety of hands, especially in late position. These include all Broadway combinations, pairs, suited connectors (also with a gap) and good suited king-queen combinations.
  • Decisive for a blind steal is that no other player is in the hand ahead of us. If we are the first to enter a hand and we do so with a raise, it is known as an open raise. When another player has already called then we need a considerably stronger starting hand if we want to raise than in the situation where all the other players ahead of us have folded. This is because an open raise often wins the hand before the flop, so the strength of our own hand itself is irrelevant. However, if another player has already called, that player will generally also call a raise, and then we’re going to have to hit a strong hand on the flop. The quality of our own hand in this case is therefore more important.
  • Another important aspect is the size of the blinds’ stacks, in particular that of the big blind. If one or both blinds have very small stacks, there is an increasing probability that they will very often go all-in. Big stacks defend their blinds more often because they don’t like being “pushed around”. Difficult situations can arise in both cases if we try to steal the blinds with very weak hands. Ideally, both the small blind and big blind have medium-sized stacks and are known for often surrendering their blinds.

Why raises are smaller from the middle phase onwards

In the middle phase of a tournament, players change from a normal raise size of 3 BBs plus 1 BB per limper to the slightly smaller raise size of around 2.5 BBs. At first sight this may appear pointless or at least irrelevant, because the pot is larger thanks to the addition of the ante. The idea behind this was that it would lead to bigger raises. In practice, however, exactly the opposite occurs.

Because of the high blinds and the ante, the players have stacks that, measured in BBs, are relatively small, as rule between 5 and 30 BBs. If we now raise a hand like 77 in a middle position and with a stack of 25 BBs, it makes (almost) no difference to the players after us whether we’ve raised 2.5 or 3 BBs. But if a player re-raises us, we will often be forced to fold. A raise of only 2.5 BBs would save us 0.5 BBs! The smaller our stack, the greater the effect of this 0.5 BB.

Here’s another advantage: in that we now risk fewer chips – the raise doesn’t have to be successful as often in order to be profitable.

  • Example

Nine players, blinds: 500/1000, ante: 100
We’re holding 77 in the middle position.
Four folds, Hero raises to 2,500, everybody folds

In this example we win 2,400 chips from the pot. Because we bet only 2,500 chips, our raise has to win the pot straight away only once in every two attempts in order to be profitable in the long term. In those cases in which we don’t win the pot before the flop, we win additional chips after the flop if our hand improves and becomes the strongest one.

Another advantage of this minimal reduction in the raise is that if we are called, the pot is correspondingly smaller. We thus have less difficulty folding weak post-flop hands if our opponent shows strength.

It is a disadvantage that players who enter the pot after us get good pot odds. This applies particularly to the big blind. In the example above, the big blind only has to put 1,500 into a pot of 4,900, giving him worthwhile pot odds of 3.3:1.

Live Poker Tournament

Defending the blinds

In the above sections we have seen that we get very good pot odds, especially as the big blind, thanks to the ante and the smaller raises. In general we shouldn’t defend our big blind against raises in earlier positions when we’re holding marginal hands.

Faced with raises from middle and late positions, we should usually re-raise when we’re holding strong to very strong hands. Especially against players who often attack the blinds from late positions, we should also defend our blind with marginal hands such as 55 or [qhth]. When we do so, the important thing is to select cards that give us a chance of hitting a good flop. Hands that are easily dominated, such as low ace and king combinations, should be folded. This will enable us to avoid problems if we hit top pair without a kicker.

If we only called in the big blind we should very often check the flop to the pre-flop aggressor and then raise, call or fold, depending on our hand and the flop structure. An exception may arise when the flop is good for us but very draw-heavy. In this case it makes sense to bet ourselves and thus deny the pre-flop aggressor a free card.

Starting hand selection

Starting hand selection in the middle phase is quite different from that of the early phase. Because the average stack is now only around 30 BBs, the implied odds are no longer adequate for many speculative hands.

The first to lose their value are the small pairs and the suited connectors, both being dependent on high implied odds. With these hands it isn’t profitable (any more) to call raises purely on their set value or to hope that the flop will turn the connectors into a monster.

There are other ways of playing these hands. One way would be to re-raise both types of hand instead of just calling. The advantage of this is that we could win the pot before the flop. There are two reasons for this:

  • our opponent has either a weak hand, or
  • a fairly good hand, but one that he doesn’t want to play against an aggressive opponent because he misses the flop too often.

Another advantage of the pre-flop raise is that we represent a very strong hand and a continuation bet on the flop can often be sufficient to push better hands into folding.

It is a disadvantage that we will have built up a big pot with a weak hand, and we risk a lot of chips.

An alternative way of playing speculative hands would be to call the pre-flop aggressor when we’re in position, and not fold right away if we don’t hit our set, two pair or strong draw on the flop. On the other hand it can be enough to grasp the initiative on the flop as soon as we think we’re ahead of our opponent’s hand range.
If the flop looks as though our opponent very probably missed it, then a bluff attempt also has good chances of succeeding.

However, there are certainly good arguments for simply folding speculative hands and concentrating on those hands that increase in value in the middle phase: middle to high pairs and aces with high kickers. These hands are strong enough for a pre-flop all-in, and they can also be played well post-flop if we didn’t go all-in beforehand.